Federal officials here are challenging Mexico City’s new law legalizing first-trimester abortion. But as the Supreme Court decides whether to take their case, city officials and activists are doing what they can to ease its implementation.

Pro-choice rally April 24 in Mexico City.

MEXICO CITY (WOMENSENEWS)–Federal officials here are trying to turn back the law legalizing first-trimester abortion in Mexico’s capital, even as city officials and reproductive rights activist are doing what they can to implement it.

Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission has teamed up with the federal attorney general to challenge the constitutionality of the law that was passed by the Mexico City legislature on April 24.

In late May the two entities challenged the law before Mexico’s Supreme Court on the grounds that the law violates an individual’s right to life, which is guaranteed under the constitution, and that the city does not have the authority to legislate health matters. The court has said it will hear the arguments but has not set a date.

"We are indignant, yes, but we are not alarmed," Marta Lamas, head of the Mexico City-based advocacy organization GIRE, the Information Group on Reproductive Choice, told reporters recently. "We know that we have reason on our side, and we know also that while the Supreme Court resolves this matter, the secretary of health will grant all requested abortions that are within the 12-week time period. This liberating experience for women no one can erase. And this experience of having respect of the right to decide will remain in the minds not only of women but also of the men who love them."

As the Supreme Court decides when to hear arguments in the case, women’s groups and city health officials are meanwhile pursuing measures to ensure that the service is widely available.

Cost and Access Hurdles

Laura Miranda, Mexico representative of the British reproductive rights group Marie Stopes International, says that people know where to go for an abortion but very often have trouble affording one.

According to Mexico City’s health department, a single dose of the abortion pill costs just under $100. If a second dose is required, the cost rises another $30. Surgical abortion can run about 5,000 pesos, or nearly $500, the health department says.

Miranda says that people know where to go for an abortion but very often have trouble affording one. The law could result in lower prices for the service as doctors are forced to compete.

The need also exists for health officials to make sure doctors are trained in the safest ways to perform abortions. The city health department has been providing training not only in procedures but also in how to address other reproductive-health needs of a woman needing an abortion.

Also, women need to be educated about the availability and new legality of abortion. Women’s groups are now mobilizing educational campaigns to let people know that abortion is no longer a crime, to make it available and to ensure that practitioners are properly trained.

Many doctors already perform abortions, making it legal by having the woman sign a form asserting that her life or health are in danger, two of the criteria that already made it legal before the ruling. But many others refuse, even if the woman has been raped, another criteria for a legal abortion.

The capital’s 14 city-run hospitals are all providing abortions, says Mexico City Health Secretary Manuel Mondragon.

Federal Agency Balks

However, the federal government’s social security agency, IMSS, which provides health care for a large number of Mexicans, has said it will not provide the service even in its Mexico City clinics.

In the first month of the law Mondragon said more than 1,300 women had sought abortion information and 230 abortions had been performed, with the largest number involving women between 20 and 24. Fifty-four percent have a bachelor’s or technical degree beyond high school.

The city has set up a 24-hour, seven-day hotline to give women information on the procedure, he said.

Opponents of the measure argue that the law will attract women from all over the country, creating "abortion tourism" and that abortion rates will soar far beyond the capital.

This does happen in other parts of the world. London, for instance, has long attracted Irish women seeking abortions. But reproductive rights advocates say it’s unlikely here.

"Rich women go to their private doctors, and poor women don’t have money for that or for travel to Mexico City," said Raffaela Schiavon, executive director of the Mexico office for Ipas, a Chapel Hill, N.C-based advocacy and training group.

Of the 230 procedures performed in the first month after the law took effect, Mondragon has said that only a handful of women had come to Mexico City from other parts of the country. Three women have come from other states, and six did not specify, he said.

"They’re not lining up in the hospitals. This is one of the myths," he said at an women’s health event in late May.

Marie Stopes Surveys City

Miranda, the Marie Stopes representative, says that before the law was passed the group had already scoped out Mexico City as a site for a potential family planning clinic in addition to the one that the group runs in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas.

She said they had looked at poor neighborhoods bordering the state of Mexico at the edge of Mexico City, given that those are places more likely to see an influx of women seeking abortions.

Miranda said that although they see a need–especially among women with scarce financial resources–it will be some time before the group can take steps to start a Mexico City clinic.

"We are working on a proposal seeking donors because it is always expensive to start a clinic," she told Women’s eNews.

Mondragon has told the city assembly that botched abortion is the fifth-highest cause of maternal mortality nationally. From 1990 to 2005, 21,646 women in Mexico died of maternal causes, he said. Of those, 537 were from abortion complications and badly performed procedures and 64 percent occurred among women who lack access to the public health care system.

The public health consideration extends across the region, said Sandra Garcia, director of reproductive health at the Mexico City office of the Population Council, an international agency that conducts research on reproductive health issues, AIDS and poverty.

"Worldwide, Latin America has the highest proportion of insecure abortions or maternal death due to unsafe abortion," Garcia said. "This is three times higher than Africa, for example."

Mexico City bureau chief Theresa Braine has written for the Associated Press, Newsday, People magazine and other outlets about Latin America. She has been based in Mexico City for four years.

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